How important is the football manager?

An attempt to understand, arguably, the most important man on the football pitch.

May 06, 2013 05:50 pm | Updated May 10, 2013 02:29 am IST - New Delhi

Guus Hiddink. Courtesy: Flickr

Guus Hiddink. Courtesy: Flickr

This is a blog post from

While watching Tottenham Hotspur defeat Southampton thanks to an amazing left-footed strike by Gareth Bale on Saturday, I was prodded by a friend to explain the importance of a manager's role in football.

The uniqueness of the manager’s position within the sport proved to be a firm obstacle in my efforts to draw comparisons from any other game which she followed more. To make matters worse slightly, I didn't have the benefit of enjoying her company and had to type out my views on the instant messenger, Whatsapp! Yes, it was tough…

So, here’s an attempt to make sense of it for many other lay readers like her and also to provide some insight for the serious football fan.

Divided into two, the first part contains quotes on the various approaches to coaching by master tacticians around the world. In the second part, to be published later, I will offer my observations.

Guus Hiddink, Anzhi Makhachkala manager

When I arrive at a new team, I look around. I sniff around. And we work, hard. To get the maximum from a player... well, in football, in sport, as in life, maybe, any person is able to do more than what he or she thinks is possible, and this, for multiple reasons, which can have to do with an excess as well as a deficit in confidence.

All individuals who are gifted with a potential to do something can attain a higher level of performance, improve by 10 or 15 percent. The key is to identify what will trigger that improvement. If players understand what they have to do on a football pitch, what their mission within the team is, then you obtain a combination that works.

But how do you identify this ‘trigger’? Honestly... I don’t know. I like... I like ‘playing’ with human beings. I like human challenges. It depends on personalities, of course. You must be able to judge which type of player you’re dealing with — as a human being. There is no overriding ‘general’ approach to the work you do with a particular team.

This guy looks a bit arrogant to me: I’ll have to fight with him if he starts behaving like a prima donna. Maybe he’s got other qualities, of which he might not be aware, and which I’ll try to make him focus on.

To get to the highest level the first thing people must do is to have a better understanding of themselves. As to me, my job is to analyse them — and be ready to accept that my assistants might contradict me, sometimes, telling me, “Hey, boss, what you’ve just done, that wasn’t the right thing to do.” It is a process which is in constant flux.

Juanma Lillo, Spanish coach and Pep Guardiola’s mentor

First, there is the question of your formal role. On a very basic level you choose who plays and who doesn’t. Otherwise, who would do it? But beyond that, I wouldn’t try to establish a role, given our limited importance. This is a game, played by players.

Those (coaches) who have expressed their significance seem to want to claim some personal protagonism or status through others. Our role is less than many coaches realise or want to believe. That said, within those limitations there are things you can outline.

First, though, you have to talk about the difference between a professional sphere and a formative sphere. You have to ask what is a coach? Some are more didactic, some have a desire for protagonism, some are orthodox, some aren’t. Some are stimulated by competition, others by the game itself.

Roberto Martinez, Wigan Athletic manager

Our major aim is to stay in this league which isn’t guaranteed. Small margins will affect that so you have to compromise at times. But not as far as my footballing philosophy is concerned. I’ll never compromise on that, never. The fans know it.

We want to be a team that takes control of the ball, a team that imposes itself in possession, that is going to be brave, will defend from the front, and will take risks. But that’s a philosophy, not a tactical system.

In tactical terms, we must be flexible. And we must have players who are committed to suffering for the team.

I wanted to carry on the recruitment policy started by Paul Jewell and Steve Bruce (ex-Wigan managers), which was very good in attracting players from Central and South America: these players leave everything to come to England, to make their families proud at home.

So, yes, in modern football, tactical organisation is a must, but as a means to an end. Remember that it is a way of allowing your talent to be effective, to win a game. The perfect tactical system doesn’t exist: it’s the players who make the system look perfect. I don’t want to rely on a system to win a game; I want to rely on a player to win a game. I love open-play goals; in fact, if I could, I’d get FIFA to give half a goal for a set-piece and a full goal for open play.”

Roy Hodgson, England manager

If someone showed a video of myself coaching in 1976, I would be horrified, as I hope that, in 36 years, there has been some kind of progression.

But in terms of the larger vision of the game, there hasn’t been much change in my philosophy, wherever I’ve done my job: putting the players first, making sure the team is organised, making certain all the players in the team know their roles, supporting them every which way you can, making sure that every training session was thoroughly organised and that everything you want to happen on the Saturday has been rehearsed and practised — all of those things remained the same in Sweden, Switzerland, Finland, Italy, Denmark or England.

Of course, to a certain extent, styles of play do depend on the players you have at your disposal. My point is: you might have your philosophy, your ideas, your concepts, but there’s always going to be players in that team who’re going to be too good to leave out and whom you’ll have to organise your team around.

You can’t afford to be too inflexible. In an ideal team, you’ve got 11 players who are up to the job, each of them suited to his role, each balancing the other. In an even more ideal situation — if you’re Manchester United or Milan — you’ll have 22, not 11. And you have to keep them happy, which is not easy.

(Quotes: The Blizzard).

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